Escaping the Heat with an Afternoon at The Painted Plate
Story Jesse Piersol
When the temperature pushes 95 degrees for the third day in a row, and it’s time to find something to do other than visit a gelato shop (again), shop online, or FaceTime with family members who have escaped to the shore, I did what any person entertaining a spunky 88-year-old mother would do: I clicked over to paintedplatepottery.com and reserved a 2pm slot to paint some ceramics.
“Quaint and soothing” are the words used to describe the vibe at The Painted Plate by Archie, who greets us when we roll through the front door. Archie is a member of the tiny team that does everything from helping customers to pick out just the right pottery piece and colors, to refilling paints and cleaning the store. She’s been working here for a little over a year now, officially starting in May 2020 after being hired just as COVID hit and things began to shut down.
I couldn’t agree more with her appraisal; indeed, the soft lighting and delightfully cool chill offer a welcome respite to the sweltering reality just beyond the door. Inside, shelf after shelf is filled with all manner of bisque-colored figurines, garden décor, vessels, dishware, and more that beckon soon-to-be artists to claim them. Each item has a price on the bottom which includes all materials and time required to bring a piece to life, as well as firing it once completed. Behind the display area, a few families with young children sit at tables painting, quietly absorbed in creating their masterpieces.
As I am chatting with Archie, my mother wastes no time in selecting a chubby round bird figurine as her project, to which I immediately object, because we had clearly decided on gnomes as our motif in the car ride over. She does not care and wheels her rollator over to an empty table to get started. I quickly (and correctly) grab the largest gnome I can find.
In these tranquil environs, it is easy to lose oneself completely to the creative impulse. Within minutes of sitting down with my tiny plastic containers of red, lime green, grey, and peach glazes, I was laser focused on creating flawless, razor-sharp edges on my gnome’s hat and beard. Like Archie suggested, I began with the lighter hues before moving on to darker shades, meticulously applying the optimal three coats that she told me made for even coverage and rich, vibrant colors.
I became one with my task in the merciless pursuit of perfection, imagining my finished gnome on display not just in my flower garden, but perhaps at a regional art show, or with a blue ribbon attached at a ceramics competition. I disappeared into a state of flow so intense that I forgot my mother was across the table from me, trying to tell me that there were no more brushes left for her to use. Yes, that’s right. There weren’t any left, because I’d used them all myself. No matter, because I needed those brushes. For these precious few minutes, I was standing on the threshold of greatness, and this gnome perched before me would not wait.
Meanwhile, at the table behind me, a young girl painted a cat figurine with the exuberant abandon of youth, covering it with a patchwork of every color in the store.
Archie confirms that there is no right way to approach this most important work. “A lot of people overthink it,” she muses, aptly summarizing my personal approach. “They think you can’t make mistakes, that it has to be perfect, but it’s really open to interpretation. Sometimes people think there are a strict set of rules, but it’s a lot more open than that.”
“We have one customer who comes in a lot,” she continues. “She brings in a different pattern that she saw on a mask or a piece of cloth, and she paints that pattern onto a plate. Each plate is one of each kind and she does an amazing job. They’re beautiful.”
Tools such as silk screens, which Archie likens to in-depth stencils, allow for intricate designs. “The colors are mixed with a special paste, and the end result ends up looking super cool.” Speckled paints offer another variation, with numerous different colors swirled throughout them.
Last year, COVID put a damper on business. “For a long time, it was pretty quiet,” Archie recalls. “Not too many people came in, and it was only by reservation. We only had six or seven tables a day. Then, with people wanting to leave their house, they needed something to do.” She says that in the last six months business has really improved, evidenced by the hundreds of brown bags filled with completed projects awaiting pickup that line the floor by the cash register.
In a few weeks, Archie will leave for college, but she’s already looking forward to her visits home when she’ll be able to work in the store again. Her favorite aspect of working here is interacting with the customers. “Everyone who comes in is just super friendly,” she says. “And it’s nice to see how creative everybody can be.”
The Painted Plate is located at 104 Market Street. Call them at 610-738-0603, or visit paintedplatepottery.com.